How Neighbourhood Watch turned into a political battle
Expats set it up to cut crime, but their biggest enemy could be Spanish politicians. We report on how Neighbourhood Watch faces a ban.
It was never going to be easy, selling the concept of Neighbourhood Watch to the Spanish.
With no tradition of cooperation between public and police – au contraire, a hearty tradition of distrust and suspicion – the very idea was anathema to many.
But it first started in Spain in Torrevieja, near Alicante, when former British police officer Graham Knight persuaded the town hall to look into the system after a crime wave began to hit the growing town's reputation.
Kent Police hosted a fact-finding trip by a Spanish councillor, and in 2003 Vecinos Cooperandos y Colaborandos (NW) was formally ratified in Madrid and a website established.
A network of coordinators began to work with the local police, watching their neighbourhood, and reporting suspicious activities.
Soon, crime began to fall, as thieves moved to easier pickings elsewhere.
The idea grew; soon, there were NW groups in some 25 towns along the Costa Blanca, in Murcia, Jalon, Calpe and Javea, with enquiries from far further, from Valencia and even Galicia.
Now, even Spanish towns with no strong foreign element were showing an interest and the organisation has some 25,000 members, an unparalleled success story in expat-Spanish cooperation.
Neighbourhood Watch had its genesis in the 1970s in Mollington, Cheshire, in the UK.
Overcoming initial suspicion, it grew rapidly and now has branches in most major British towns.
The idea had arrived; in the United States, it spread rapidly as 'Homewatch', whilst it is popular in its original name and format in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Germany has its own version, operating along very similar lines, as does France.
Crime Fighters: Neighbourhood Watch accused of being gangs of vigilantes
It has been established and officially supported in towns with both opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) and Socialist local administrations.
But in Torrevieja, a PP stronghold, it came under attack from the opposition, especially from the Izquierda Unida or United Left (IU) party.
In February this year Isaura Navarro, the IU spokesman on an interior ministry committee in Madrid was briefed by Jose Martinez Andreu, an IU councillor in Torrevieja, to the effect that 'Neighbourhood Watch' consisted of 'citizen’s patrols', in effect vigilantes going out on the streets with pickaxe handles and so forth to deter criminals.
Vigilantism is, of course, illegal in Spain, as in most countries.
With this information placed before them, the committee put to a vote whether this organisation should be banned and, with a deciding vote from the Socialist deputy, Pilar Unzala (who had not been briefed on the subject at all) the vote was passed and a recommendation to that effect duly submitted to the Congress or lower house of parliament in Madrid.
Should the voting go the same way in Congress, then Vecinos Cooperandos y Colaborandos may be declared an illegal organisation and closed down.
Spain would become the only western European nation to ban it.
The fight back starts
NW president, James Herbert, of Pilar de Horadada, in the Costa Blanca, and Graham Knight, vice president, decided to fight back.
A chance remark that Neighbourhood Watch was 'as British as afternoon tea' brought the retort from Socialist councillor Joaquin Garrido that if the British wanted afternoon tea they should get back to Britain.
Both supporters and opponents of the scheme became embroiled in an increasingly bitter war of words.
Meanwhile, those deputies in Madrid who originally voted against NW began to have doubts.
Initial photos in Spanish newspapers of baseball-bat wielding groups of men were proved to be, in fact, of holidaying madrileños exercising their own brand of policing.
Extensive research produced no evidence of NW 'patrols' ever being seen on the streets.
English-language newspapers from Valencia to Malaga took up the story, whilst local TV and radio ran endless interviews with those concerned.
Vigilantes: Isaura Navarro claimed NW was group of vigilantes
Backed into a corner, Señor Martinez admitted that maybe NW didn't send out armed patrols but that he still didn't like it and thought it ought to be banned.
Meanwhile, there is deafening silence from Madrid; as things stand, the matter will still be put before Congress. An adverse vote could result in the organisation's compulsory closure.
A classic case of mischief-making getting out of control, or a potentially disastrous breakdown between the two communities, British and Spanish?
Time alone will tell, but doubtless the criminal fraternity all along the southern coast will be watching the end result of the furore with great interest.
For further details: www.NHWinspain.com
Subject: Spain; Neighbourhood Watch